Although she is a Greek who speaks with a distinct accent, Dr Irene Zempi had never felt foreign in Britain and was always treated warmly until she spent a month wearing the full Islamic veil for a research experiment.
“It was devastating to me; I am a very happy person,” she says. “Everyone was so horrible. Men came very close to intimidate me. I was ignored in John Lewis.”
Dr Zempi, who is not Muslim, also interviewed dozens of British veiled women for her PhD thesis. Their voice are a fascinating, seldom-heard contribution to an incendiary debate.
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This week the European Court of Human Rights upheld the French government’s ban on the veil on the ground that the face “played a significant role in social interaction”. So what is it like to live without a public face? The Leicester women interviewed by Dr Zempi said: “If staring could kill I’d be dead.” They face daily abuse, have lighted cigarettes flicked at their hijabs from passing vans; older white English women call them disgusting and silly; fellow students ask: “Do you have a bomb under there?” Some are chased by men who rip off their scarves.
In the post 9/11 and 7/7 age the veil has become a lightning conductor for antipathy towards Islam itself. The true “black flag of Islam” is not the banner that Isis would raise over Buckingham Palace but the cloth shrouding women — the first edict of any Islamist revolution.
Many of the women say that the veil creates so much adverse attention they seldom go out: “My life has become like a prison. I’m forced to stay in my home so they have made me a prisoner. They are oppressing me.”
Yet never do they consider that their isolation might be self-induced; that if you put a black curtain between yourself and your fellow citizens they might regard it not as piety but as a declaration of hostility. A mother’s face is the first thing we see as an infant; reading someone’s expression is a universal key to human communication; masks have always been a primal source of fear.
A few try to assuage this cultural anxiety. One ditches her black veil for a pink or blue one that “looks more friendly”. Another, Maryam, tries in vain to win over shop assistants by “smiling with my eyes”.
It is hard not to sympathise with these women, often desperate to fit in, indignant about being told to “go live in a Sharia country” when they are — and feel — British. But the question will not go away: why do they put themselves through this?
Dr Zempi reports that most are “on a religious journey”, they had already adopted the headscarf, but felt it didn’t adequately represent their faith: only the veil meant true belief. This association between concealment and observance is now preached hard in many British mosques. But as a prominent imam, Dr Taj Hargey, of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, argued in a letter to The Times, the veil is an “imported Saudi fad” with “no Koranic mandate” as it predates Islam itself and thus is “ipso facto un-Muslim”.
What Dr Zempi’s research suggests is that the veil is not merely a symbol of separateness but an engine of social division. Feeling obliged to wear it makes these women feel vulnerable and less confident about attending college or work. (Indeed, it may preclude them from certain professions.) Some feel uneasy leaving the house veiled unless they are accompanied by a male relative; their lives spiralling towards a Saudi model of female subordination.
Moreover, the anger that the veil provokes unsurprisingly makes them suspicious of non-Muslims, less likely to mix in white-British areas. And while some, often at the insistence of worried parents, cast off the veil to feel safer, others are only galvanised by hostility. “If I were to be stabbed or have stones thrown at me for the sake of my religion,” says Faridah. “I would feel proud because Allah is testing me. This person is just the means.”
The veil is not only radicalising women but their brothers and sons. When they see female relatives stared at for covering their faces, it only confirms the messages from the mosques that Muslims are a separate and beleaguered people, justifying a righteous anger whose logical conclusion is jihad.
The veil is so much more than a garment or even a symbol of faith like the cross, yarmulke, turban or headscarf, whose British wearers live largely free from abuse. It is a Trojan horse for an extreme form of Wahhabi Islam that provokes western Muslims to rage against their non-Muslim compatriots rather than to co-exist in peace with them. The veil is both a means to banish women from public life and a tool for provoking social unrest. It is horrifying that Shami Chakrabarti, of Liberty, argued against the European Court’s ruling.
The judgment may revive the idea that Britain too should impose a ban, a policy rejected even by UKIP. That is exactly the vicious public battle that many Islamist groups seek. Instead we should encourage the moderate Muslim middle ground, which has long been intimidated into silence, but which both Dr Hargey’s letter and this week’s statement from more than 100 imams urging British youths not to travel abroad for jihad suggest may finally be finding a voice.
It is the schoolgirls who feel compelled to cover up at an ever younger age, the Leicester women treated like sinners in their own communities for showing their faces, those who decry this ancient and regressive practice whom Liberty should be supporting. Not the theocrats who use the veil as a weapon and would make a bonfire of all our civil rights.